Construction crews unearth early-1900s artifacts in Curtiss Hall renovations


Richard Martinez/Iowa State Daily

Ed Adcock, an agricultural communications specialist, holds a horseshoe and inkwell, both dating back to the mid-1920s, discovered by workers during renovations on Curtiss Hall. 

Caitlin Deaver

Three historical artifacts, a glass inkwell, a rusty horseshoe and a century-old beer bottle, were found on on the Curtiss Hall property during its Phase One renovations.

The building and construction of Curtiss Hall — originally named Agricultural Hall — began in 1906, and took three years to complete. Curtiss Hall first opened its doors in 1912 after sitting vacant for a further three years.

“[The three artifacts] reflect the history of the very start of the building,” said Brian Meyer, agriculture communications director. “They also show the working conditions during that era, which is kind of hard to picture nowadays.”

As of now, no one knows the exact histories of the artifacts. Their stories are based on speculations correlated with the way of life from their given time periods in history.

Ed Adcock, agriculture communications specialist, currently has the inkwell and horseshoe. Kerry Dixon, of Facilities Planning and Management, currently has the beer bottle.

“I love finding these old things,” Dixon said. “It’s nice to see that students, builders and faculty [members] stashed stuff away, and we found it. It connects us to the history of the school.”

The three objects were the only whole pieces found during renovations. They were not cleaned to minimize the risks of damaging the items and to preserve historical value.

The inkwell was found in an old machinery space that had not been touched since Curtiss Hall was built. It is estimated to date back between 1908 to 1910, or even before.

In the early 20th century, quill-and-ink pens were the main tool for writing, just like today’s pencil. The inkwell might have been used to mark up documents and blueprints pertaining to the construction of Curtiss Hall.

The inkwell is simple, not exhibiting any ornateness. As inkwells became more obsolete with the invention of fountain pens and eventually pencils, inkwells were used more for decorative purposes than functionality.

The horseshoe, which still had some of its nails intact, was found to the north of the Harl Commons’ entryway. Construction crew members found the horseshoe when they were removing the old driveway that ran into Ross Hall’s loading dock. It is estimated to be about 90 years old, dating back to before the mid-1920s.

Because it still has nails intact, the horseshoe appears to have been thrown from a horse, rather than the result of a re-shoeing from a farrier. Afterward, it was simply lost in the dirt and buried over time.

Dixon speculates the horseshoe came from a service horse coming from the farms to Curtiss Hall. While in school, students were required to work in the farms, utilizing service horses on a daily basis.

The beer bottle, which has its original cork stuck inside, was found when one of the contractors was taking out the floor under one of the staircases during renovations. Based on the shape and markings on the bottom of the bottle, the manufacturer was tracked down.

With that information, it was concluded that the bottle was produced sometime between 1890 and 1910, lining up with the beginning construction of Curtiss Hall.

It is speculated the bottle was left behind by one of the first builders when he went to have lunch after a long day of construction.

“The masons would have brought a bottle of beer in their lunch bucket and had it during their noon meal,” Dixon said. “Back then, that meal would have to be very sturdy. It was no big deal to consume beer on a construction site.”

As of now, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences plans to display the three artifacts within Curtiss Hall. The display will articulate the history to students, telling the building’s story.

Eventually, the artifacts will be turned into the Parks Library archives. After that, the archivists may choose to test the artifacts or call in professionals for more accurate ages.

“We may not know all the exact details about the artifacts, but they are fun and interesting things to look at,” Meyer said. “You never know what will turn up when you start digging around.”